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Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall

To understand and appreciate the fourteen du Maurier stories that are based round Cornwall it’s vital to be in situ, which is why I made  this trip. I prepped up in the morning by reading Daphne du  Maurier’s Cornwall.  She always did her research thoroughly and she writes fully on life and the three staple industries of Cornwall: fishing, smuggling and tin. In the 1850s Cornwall supplied 2/3 rds of the world’s tin. The demise of tin gave rise to smuggling on an epic scale. To give you some idea of the amount of smuggling, the Customs House once auctioned off 4700 gallons of French cognac they had confiscated. Imagine the volume they had not. Cornish fishermen are an intrepid bunch, setting off in dangerous waters and weather for their catch. The sea is very much an ever-present feature of the county and her writing.  Her  first novel The Loving Spirit is based on the story of Jane Slade told to her by a local fisherman, her grandson. Jane’s sense of freedom echoes Du Maurier who, after the success of the novel, had the independence she craved from the financial success.

In 1932 Boy Browning sailed into Fowey harbour on his boat Ygdrasil. He sent a note to Daphne that his father and her’s – Gerald du Maurier – were fellow members of the Garrick Club and invited her on  his boat. Three months later they were married. The sea metaphor  was adopted by the vicar in his address “You will embark on a fair sea and at times there will be fair weather and foul, never lose courage. Safe harbour awaits you at the end”. The words proved prophetic. Boy Browning was a talented man: the youngest major in the army and later comptroller of the Royal Family’s finances. However he was a depressive and alcoholic. Daphne Du Maurier had affairs with both men and women during the marriage but was a supportive loving wife. Browning masterminded the Arnhem offensive and she took enormous and vocal objection to the depiction of him by Dirk Bogarde in the film A Bridge Too Far.

Throughout her life she was devoted to Cornish causes. My guide, a national cricket coach , came to Fowey in the eighties. He played for Fowey Cricket Club and sought sponsors for the impoverished club. Daphne du Maurier gave him a cheque for £25 and became a Vice President. She was a complex woman, wilful, but generous to all  she knew. She acquired a lease to the Menabilly Estate from Philip Rashleigh just before the war on a peppercorn rent provided she refurbished it. She achieved this notwithstanding the obvious lack of manpower due to the war effort. Menabilly was the inspiration of Manderlay in Rebecca, her best known work, which elevated her from a successful lady novelist to one whose popularity and sales were exceeded only by one other female writer, who lived not far away on the River Dart … Agatha Christie.

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About Melanie Gay

A former literary agent with three published novels of her own, Melanie retains her life-long love of the written word and recently mastered the Kindle. She is currently writing a historical novel set in 17th Century Britain and Holland. More Posts